The Dirt of Duke’s Community Gardens: Do We Know What We’re Eating?
by Tiffany Edwards -- April 27th, 2011
Thanks to a recent STARS grant, soon the Duke Community Garden will open one of its plots to volunteer gardeners this spring.
This is in conjunction with the recent expansions of the Duke Honey Patch and the Duke Campus Farm. These three programs offer a wonderful opportunity for Duke students to engage with the greater Durham community, but the trio of gardens are missing a prime opportunity to educate people about the history of the soils they farm and the science behind the dirt they dig.
The Community Garden, located on campus adjacent to the Home Depot Smart House, has the goal of providing food to the campus eateries, as do the newly established Campus Farm, located within the Duke Forest, and the Honey Patch, located towards the Northeast end of the Sarah Duke Gardens. There has been a spate of articles in the local news discussing how these gardens stimulate community outreach and healthier eating, but no one has yet brought up what is possibly a very important factor: what kind of dirt are they digging in?
Duke University and the Duke Forest are located on acres of what was once intensively farmed agricultural land. Prior to its use as farmland, this area once supported pine and hardwood forests. The Community Garden, according to the GIS programs for Durham and Orange Counties, is located on White Store Urban Land Complex (WwC) soil. The Honey Patch is also located on White Store Urban Land Complex, and the Campus Farm is an Appling sandy loam (ApB). These soil classifications have implications for both history and management: White Store- Urban Land Complexes have had as much as two-thirds of the original soil removed and replaced with fill. What remains of the original White Store is typically a silty clay loam that occurs on uplands. The Appling of the Campus Farm is a sandy loam that is more easily gardened. It frequently has a high amount of clay, occurs on broad ridges, has a low amount of organic matter, and is moderately permeable.
What are some implications for gardeners? We know that the land of the Community Garden and Honey Patch have been heavily affected by urban development over time, and the gardens are using organic methods. It could be wise to test the soil for its fertility and for potential toxins, both of which could affect how Duke advertises its produce in campus eateries, as well as confirming that the soil is good to grow food in. Additionally, these gardens are surrounded by areas that are mostly pine forest. Accordingly, the surrounding soils will be more acidic, which could affect the amounts of lime and other basic soil amendments that are needed. As both Appling sandy loam and the White Store are classified as only moderately permeable, it would be wise to monitor the amount of watering carefully to ensure that ponding does not ensue. Finally, as the Appling sandy loam naturally has a fairly low amount of organic matter, it would be beneficial to build up the Campus Farm’s organic matter to prevent the soil from becoming exhausted.
All of us here at Duke know that knowledge is power. By learning a little more about the history and character of the soils we farm, we can connect not just to our community but to Duke’s history—and, in the process, become better and more efficient guardians of Duke’s legacy.